The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) discussed the general price of bus fares. She is absolutely right to express concerns about that. Over the past 30 years, the trend has been that the average cost of travelling by bus has increased more than the average cost of travelling by train or car. We recognise that buses are used disproportionately by poorer people.

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I want to ensure that we consider that issue in our response to the Competition Commission’s inquiry into the bus market. It is not for us in Government to start telling people how much they should charge for buses in Kettering or anywhere else, but we must ensure that the system and the market work properly, which is what we are trying to achieve as part of our consideration of the Competition Commission responses.

I was interested in the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South about the deal reached between the council and Arriva to provide a 50p rate before 9.30. It is an exceedingly interesting idea that a bus company and a council can come together to create a new, innovative arrangement that meets the needs of local people and, presumably, the bus company as well. We need more arrangements such as that, and I hope that we will see what we can do to encourage such innovation across the country.

Iain Stewart: I would like to place it on record that a key body instrumental in brokering that deal was the Milton Keynes Pensioners Association. It required good work on all sides, but the association had an instrumental role in helping that deal be struck.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for rightly putting that point on record.

Several Members raised the importance of consultation. I welcome the Transport Committee’s emphasis on it, and it is right that Members have mentioned it here. It is also right that councils and operators considering changing services consult properly. It is clear from the evidence that the Committee and I have seen that there are some good examples and some pretty ropey ones. The message that I want to give to bus companies and local councils is that they must consult properly and take into account the consequences of any changes that they propose. Actually, if they consult properly, they often get some good and constructive responses and end up with a solution that is better than the one proposed, not just for customers but for the company.

The Chair of the Transport Committee asked when I expect we will know what the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers is doing with its assessment. I mentioned the annual statistics, but the ATCO assessment is happening now, and we expect the results early in the new year. There is no reason why the Department should not share that with the Committee as and when it comes to us, so I will ask my officials to ensure that we are in touch with the Chairman then.

The toolkit has been mentioned by a number of Members. Passenger Focus is gathering evidence from local authorities and bus operators to find examples of good practice. It is receiving good support from the authorities it has contacted and we expect to see a first draft in January, so we and Passenger Focus are making good, swift progress, which is rightly important to Members present.

The only other points that I want to pick up on are two of the issues to which the Chairman of the Committee referred—namely the bus service operator grant and the concessionary fares reimbursement formula. Contrary to the information that has just been provided by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, it is a fact that the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, to which I spoke immediately after the spending review, told me

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that, in general terms, it felt that the BSOG reduction, given the notice that we had given and the limited amount of reduction, was one that it could in general absorb without fares rising or services being cut. That is what the industry told me. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the exact quote if he wants. That is what it said.

John Woodcock: I am aware of the quote, but does the Minister accept that, while it is one thing to look at that in isolation, the situation is entirely different if we combine it with the two other substantial cuts faced by the industry, and that it is simply unrealistic to expect things to remain the same?

Norman Baker: There is an issue as to the extent to which other elements of what is happening in the wider market, including the price of fuel, what is happening in the world market, the eurozone or any other factors outside our control, affect the operation of bus services. The hon. Gentleman has referred specifically to the BSOG reduction and the industry has given me a specific response. That is what it said and we should stick with it.

On the concessionary fare reimbursement formula, we have not changed, in any shape or form, the legislation that we inherited from the previous Government. It requires councils and transport authorities to deal with operators in a way that reimburses them so that they are no worse off and no better off from handling concessionary fares. That is a legal requirement and it has not changed. All we have done is issue guidance to indicate to local authorities how they should perhaps discharge that function. They are under no obligation to follow that guidance if they do not wish to do so. The remedy for bus companies that are unhappy with that is to go to an independent appeal. Not very many of them have done so and not many appeals have been won. If bus companies are receiving less money from local authorities and are not seeking to appeal, or do not win appeals, that suggests that they were overpaid previously, contrary to the terms of the legislation. That is a simple analysis of

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the situation. If, on the other hand, they win their appeal, it shows that local authorities have not been sufficiently reimbursing them on a no better, no worse-off basis. The legislation has not changed at all. I think that, to some extent, the argument is something of a diversion.

I am very conscious of the importance of buses in our country. I do not underestimate the difficulties of local councils in particular, and I am concerned about the level of supported services in some parts of the country, as opposed to the commercial services, which I think are, by and large, all right. We need to see the picture across the country. One effect of localism is that some councils are handling this very well while others are handling it very badly. It is not for us to say that a local council must follow a particular procedure, but I think it is the right of people in those areas to ask why there are no buses in their council area while they are running very well indeed across the border. That is a legitimate function for local people to practise.

We have supplied a lot of help to the bus industry in the way I have described—through the green bus fund, the local sustainable transport fund and the money that the Chancellor has given this week—and I hope to make further helpful announcements in the not too distant future.

5.23 pm

Mrs Ellman: I thank Members for their constructive contributions, which I hope will help us to improve bus services. I also thank the members of my Committee, who today displayed the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge that has helped to make this report effective. It will be even more effective if it changes the situation, as I hope it will. Buses matter and my Committee intends to continue to attach to them the importance that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

5.24 pm

Sitting adjourned.